Back | Next

Before I Wake

Then he woke up, and it was all a dream.

In his dream Abernathy stood on a steep rock ridge. A talus slope dropped from the ridge to a glacial basin containing a small lake. The lake was cobalt in the middle, aquamarine around the edges. Here and there in the rock expanse patches of meadow grass gleamed, like the lawns of marmot estates. There were no trees. The cold air felt thin in his throat. He could see ranges many miles away, and though everything was perfectly still there was also an immense sweep in things, as if a gust of wind had caught the very fabric of being.

“Wake up, damn you,” a voice said. He was shoved in the back, and he tumbled down the rockfall, starting a small avalanche.

He stood in a large white room. Glass boxes of various sizes were stacked everywhere, four and five to a pile, and in every box was a sleeping animal: monkey, rat, dog, cat, pig, dolphin, turtle. “No,” he said, backing up. “Please, no.”

A bearded man entered the room. “Come on, wake up,” he said brusquely. “Time to get back to it, Fred. Our only hope is to work as hard as we can. You have to resist when you start slipping away!” He seized Abernathy by the arms and sat him down on a box of squirrels. “Now listen!” he cried. “We’re asleep! We’re dreaming!”

“Thank God,” Abernathy said.

“Not so fast! We’re awake as well.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Yes you do!” He slapped Abernathy in the chest with a large roll of graph paper, and it spilled loose and unrolled over the floor. Black squiggles smeared the graphs.

“It looks like a musical score,” Abernathy said absently.

The bearded man shouted, “Yes! Yes! This is the symphony our brains play, very apt! Violins yammering away—that’s what used to be ours, Fred; that was consciousness.” He yanked hard on his beard with both hands, looking anguished. “Sudden drop to the basses, bowing and bowing, blessed sleep, yes, yes! And in the night the ghost instruments, horn and oboe and viola, spinning their little improvs over the ground bass, longer and longer till the violins start blasting again, yes, Fred, it’s perfectly apt!”

“Thank you,” Abernathy said. “But you don’t have to yell. I’m right here.”

“Then wake up,” the man said viciously. “Can’t, can you! Trapped, aren’t you! Playing the new song like all the rest of us. Look at it there—REM sleep mixed indiscriminately with consciousness and deep sleep, turning us all into dreamwalkers. Into waking nightmares.”

Looking into the depths of the man’s beard, Abernathy saw that all his teeth were incisors. Abernathy edged toward the door, then broke for it and ran. The man leaped forward and tackled him, and they tumbled to the floor.

Abernathy woke up.

“Ah ha,” the man said. It was Winston, administrator of the lab. “So now you believe me,” he said sourly, rubbing an elbow. “I suppose we should write that down on the walls. If we all start slipping away we won’t even remember what things used to be like. It’ll all be over then.”

“Where are we?” Abernathy asked.

“In the lab,” Winston replied, voice filled with heavy patience. “We live here now, Fred. Remember?”

Abernathy looked around. The lab was large and well lit. Sheets of graph paper recording EEGs were scattered over the floor. Black countertops protruded from the walls, which were cluttered with machinery. In one corner were two rats in a cage.

Abernathy shook his head violently. It was all coming back. He was awake now, but the dream had been true. He groaned, walked to the room’s little window, saw the smoke rising from the city below. “Where’s Jill?”

Winston shrugged. They hurried through a door at the end of the lab, into a small room containing cots and blankets. No one there. “She’s probably gone back to the house again,” Abernathy said. Winston hissed with irritation and worry. “I’ll check the grounds,” he said. “You’d better go to the house. Be careful!”

Fred was already out the door.

In many places the streets were almost blocked by smashed cars, but little had changed since Abernathy’s last venture home, and he made good time. The suburbs were choking in haze that smelled like incinerator smoke. A gas station attendant holding a pump handle stared in astonishment as he drove by, then waved. Abernathy didn’t wave back. On one of these expeditions he had seen a knifing, and now he didn’t like to look.

He stopped the car at the curb before his house. The remains of his house. It was charred almost to the ground. The blackened chimney was all that stood over chest high.

He got out of his old Cortina and slowly crossed the lawn, which was marked by black footprints. In the distance a dog barked insistently.

Jill stood in the kitchen, humming to herself and moving black things from here to there. She looked up as Abernathy stopped in the side yard before her. Her eyes twitched from side to side. “You’re home,” she said cheerily. “How was your day?”

“Jill, let’s go out to dinner,” Abernathy said.

“But I’m already cooking!”

“I can see that.” He stepped over what had been the kitchen wall and took her arm. “Don’t worry about that. Let’s go anyway.”

“My my,” Jill said, brushing his face with a sooty hand. “Aren’t you romantic this evening.”

He stretched his lips wide. “You bet. Come on.” He pulled her carefully out of the house and across the yard, and helped her into the Cortina. “Such chivalry,” she remarked, eyes darting about in tandem.

Abernathy got in and started the engine. “But Fred,” his wife said, “what about Jeff and Fran?”

Abernathy looked out his window. “They’ve got a babysitter,” he finally said.

Jill frowned, nodded, sat back in her seat. Her broad face was smudged. “Ah,” she said, “I do so like to dine out.”

“Yes,” Abernathy said, and yawned. He felt drowsy. “Oh no,” he said. “No!” He bit his lip, pinched the back of the hand on the wheel. Yawned again. “No!” he cried. Jill jerked against her door in surprise. He swerved to avoid hitting an Oriental woman sitting in the middle of the road. “I must get to the lab,” he shouted. He pulled down the Cortina’s sun visor, took a pen from his coat pocket and scrawled To The Lab. Jill was staring at him. “It wasn’t my fault,” she whispered.

He drove them onto the freeway. All thirty lanes were clear, and he put his foot down on the accelerator. “To the lab,” he sang, “to the lab, to the lab.” A flying police vehicle landed on the highway ahead of them, folded its wings and sped off. Abernathy tried to follow it, but the freeway turned and narrowed, they were back on street level. He shouted with frustration, bit the flesh at the base of his thumb. Jill leaned back against her door, crying. Her eyes looked like small beings, a team trying to jerk its way free. “I couldn’t help it,” she said. “He loved me, you know. And I loved him.”

Abernathy drove on. Some streets were burning. He wanted to go west, needed to go west. The car was behaving oddly. They were on a tree-lined avenue, out where there were few houses. A giant Boeing 747 lay across the road, its wings slewed forward. A high tunnel had been cut through it so traffic could pass. A cop with whistle and white gloves waved them through.

On the dashboard an emergency light blinked. To The Lab. Abernathy sobbed convulsively. “I don’t know how!”

Jill, his sister, sat up straight. “Turn left,” she said quietly. Abernathy threw the directional switch and their car rerouted itself onto the track that veered left. They came to other splits in the track, and each time Jill told him which way to go. The rear-view mirror bloomed with smoke.

Then he woke up. Winston was swabbing his arm with a wad of cotton, wiping off a droplet of blood.

“Amphetamines and pain,” Winston whispered.

They were in the lab. About a dozen lab techs, postdocs, and grad students were in there at their countertops, working with great speed. “How’s Jill?” Abernathy said.

“Fine, fine. She’s sleeping right now. Listen, Fred. I’ve found a way to keep us awake for longer periods of time. Amphetamines and pain. Regular injections of benzedrine, plus a sharp burst of pain every hour or so, administered in whatever way you find most convenient. Metabolism stays too high for the mind to slip into the dreamwalking. I tried it and stayed fully awake and alert for six hours. Now we’re all using the method.”

Abernathy watched the lab techs dash about. “I can tell.” He could feel his heart’s rapid emphatic thumping.

“Well let’s get to it,” Winston said intently. “Let’s make use of this time.”

Abernathy stood. Winston called a little meeting. Feeling the gazes fixed on him, Abernathy collected his thoughts. “The mind consists of electrochemical action. Since we’re all suffering the effects of this, it seems to me we can ignore the chemical and concentrate on the electrical. If the ambient fields have changed… Anyone know how many gauss the magnetic field is now? Or what the cosmic ray count is?”

They stared at him.

“We can tune in to the space station’s monitor,” he said. “And do the rest here.”

So he worked, and they worked with him. Every hour a grinning Winston came around with hypodermics in hand, singing “Speed, speed, spee-ud!” He convinced Abernathy to let droplets of hydrochloric acid fall on the inside of his forearm.

It kept Abernathy awake better than it did the others. For a whole day, then two, he worked without pause, eating crackers and drinking water as he worked, giving himself the injections when Winston wasn’t there.

After the first few hours his assistants began slipping back into dreamwalking, despite the injections and acid splashings. Assignments he gave were never completed. One of his techs presented him with a successful experiment: the two rats, grafted together at the leg. Vainly Abernathy tried to pummel the man back to wakefulness.

In the end he did all the work himself. It took days. As his techs collapsed or wandered off he shifted from counter to counter, squinting sand-filled eyes to read oscilloscope and computer screen. He had never felt so exhausted in his life. It was like taking tests in a subject he didn’t understand, in which he was severely retarded.

Still he kept working. The EEGs showed oscillation between wakefulness and REM sleep, in a pattern he had never seen. And there were correlations between the EEGs and fluctuations in the magnetic field.

Some of the men’s flickering eyes were open, and they sat on the floors talking to each other or to him. Once he had to calm Winston, who was on the floor weeping and saying, “We’ll never stop dreaming, Fred, we’ll never stop.” Abernathy gave him an injection, but it didn’t have any effect.

He kept working. He sat at a crowded table at his high school reunion, and found he could work anyway. He gave himself an injection whenever he remembered. He got very, very tired.

Eventually he felt he understood as much as he was going to. Everyone else was lying in the cot room with Jill, or was slumped on the floors. Eyes and eyelids were twitching.

“We move through space filled with dust and gas and fields of force. Now all the constants have changed. The read-outs from the space station show that, show signs of a strong electromagnetic field we’ve apparently moved into. More dust, cosmic rays, gravitational flux. Perhaps it’s the shockwave of a supernova, something nearby that we’re just seeing now. Anyone looked up into the sky lately? Anyway. Something. The altered field has thrown the electrical patterns of our brains into something like what we call the REM state. Our brains rebel and struggle towards consciousness as much as they can, but this field forces them back. So we oscillate.” He laughed weakly, and crawled up onto one of the countertops to get some sleep.

He woke and brushed the dust off his lab coat, which had served him as a blanket. The dirt road he had been sleeping on was empty. He walked. It was cloudy, and nearly dark.

He passed a small group of shacks, built in a tropical style with open walls and palm thatch roofs. They were empty. Dark light filled the sky.

Then he was at the sea’s edge. Before him extended a low promontory, composed of thousands of wooden chairs, all crushed and piled together. At the point of the promontory there was a human figure, seated in a big chair that still had seat and back and one arm.

Abernathy stepped out carefully, onto slats and lathed cylinders of wood, from a chair arm to the plywood bottom of a chair seat. Around him the gray ocean was strangely calm; glassy swells rose and fell over the slick wood at waterline without a sound. Insubstantial clouds of fog, the lowest parts of a solid cloud cover, floated slowly onshore. The air was salty and wet. Abernathy shivered, stepped down to the next fragment of weathered gray wood.

The seated man turned to look at him. It was Winston. “Fred,” he called, loud in the silence of the dawn. Abernathy approached him, picked up a chair back, placed it carefully, sat.

“How are you?” Winston said.

Abernathy nodded. “Okay.” Down close to the water he could hear the small slaps and sucking of the sea’s rise and fall. The swells looked a bit larger, and he could see thin smoky mist rising from them as they approached the shore.

“Winston,” he croaked, and cleared his throat. “What’s happened?”

“We’re dreaming.”

“But what does that mean?”

Winston laughed wildly. “Emergent stage one sleep, transitional sleep, rapid sleep, rhombencephalic sleep, pontine sleep, activated sleep, paradoxical sleep.” He grinned ironically. “No one knows what it is.”

“But all those studies.”

“Yes, all those studies. And how I used to believe in them, how I used to work for them, all those sorry guesses ranging from the ridiculous to the absurd, we dream to organize experience into memory, to stimulate the senses in the dark, to prepare for the future, to give our depth perception exercise for God’s sake! I mean we don’t know, do we Fred. We don’t know what dreaming is, we don’t know what sleep is, you only have to think about it a bit to realize we didn’t know what consciousness itself was, what it meant to be awake. Did we ever really know? We lived, we slept, we dreamed, and all three equal mysteries. Now that we’re doing all three at once, is the mystery any deeper?”

Abernathy picked at the grain in the wood of a chair leg. “A lot of the time I feel normal,” he said. “It’s just that strange things keep happening.”

“Your EEGs display an unusual pattern,” Winston said, mimicking a scientific tone. “More alpha and beta waves than the rest of us. As if you’re struggling hard to wake up.”

“Yes. That’s what it feels like.”

They sat in silence for a time, watching swells lap at the wet chairs. The tide was falling. Offshore, near the limit of visibility, Abernathy saw a large cabin cruiser drifting in the current.

“So tell me what you’ve found,” Winston said.

Abernathy described the data transmitted from the space station, then his own experiments.

Winston nodded. “So we’re stuck here for good.”

“Unless we pass through this field. Or—I’ve gotten an idea for a device you could wear around your head that might restore the old field.”

“A solution seen in a dream?”


Winston laughed. “I used to believe in our rationality, Fred. Dreams as some sort of electrochemical manifestation of the nervous system, random activity, how reasonable it all sounded! Give the depth perception exercise! God, how small-minded it all was. Why shouldn’t we have believed that dreams were great travels, to the future, to other universes, to a world more real than our own! They felt that way sometimes, in that last second before waking, as if we lived in a world so charged with meaning that it might burst… And now here we are. We’re here, Fred, this is the moment and our only moment, no matter how we name it. We’re here. From idea to symbol, perhaps. People will adapt. That’s one of our talents.”

“I don’t like it,” Abernathy said. “I never liked my dreams.”

Winston merely laughed at him. “They say consciousness itself was a leap like this one, people were ambling around like dogs and then one day, maybe because the earth moved through the shockwave of some distant explosion, sure, one day one of them straightened up and looked around surprised, and said ‘I am’.

“That would be a surprise,” Abernathy said.

“And this time everyone woke up one morning still dreaming, and looked around and said ‘What AM I?’” Winston laughed. “Yes, we’re stuck here. But I can adapt.” He pointed. “Look, that boat out there is sinking.”

They watched several people aboard the craft struggle to get a rubber raft over the side. After many dunkings they got it in the water and everyone inside it. Then they rowed away, offshore into the mist.

“I’m afraid,” Abernathy said.

Then he woke up. He was back in the lab. It was in worse shape than ever. A couple of countertops had been swept clean to make room for chessboards, and several techs were playing blindfolded, arguing over which board was which.

He went to Winston’s offices to get more benzedrine. There was no more. He grabbed one of his postdocs and said, “How long have I been asleep?” The man’s eyes twitched, and he sang his reply: “Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” Abernathy went to the cot room. Jill was there, naked except for light blue underwear, smoking a cigarette. One of the grad students was brushing her nipples with a feather. “Oh hi, Fred,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. “Where have you been?”

“Talking to Winston,” he said with difficulty. “Have you seen him?”

“Yes! I don’t know when, though…”

He started to work alone again. No one wanted to help. He cleared a small room off the main lab, and dragged in the equipment he needed. He locked three large boxes of crackers in a cabinet, and tried to lock himself in his room whenever he felt drowsy. Once he spent six weeks in China, then he woke up. Sometimes he woke out in his old Cortina, hugging the steering wheel like his only friend. All his friends were lost. Each time he went back and started working again. He could stay awake for hours at a time. He got lots done. The magnets were working well, he was getting the fields he wanted. The device for placing the field around the head—an odd-looking wire helmet—was practicable.

He was tired. It hurt to blink. Every time he felt drowsy he applied more acid to his arm. It was covered with burns, but none of them hurt anymore. When he woke he felt as if he hadn’t slept for days. Twice his grad students helped out, and he was grateful for that. Winston came by occasionally, but only laughed at him. He was too tired, everything he did was clumsy. He got on the lab phone once and tried to call his parents; all the lines were busy. The radio was filled with static, except for a station that played nothing but episodes of “The Lone Ranger.” He went back to work. He ate crackers and worked. He worked and worked.

Late one afternoon he went out onto the lab’s cafeteria terrace to take a break. The sun was low, and a chill breeze blew. He could see the air, filled with amber light, and he breathed it in violently. Below him the city smoked, and the wind blew, and he knew that he was alive, that he was aware he was alive, and that something important was pushing into the world, suffusing things…

Jill walked onto the terrace, still wearing nothing but the blue underwear. She stepped on the balls of her feet, smiled oddly. Abernathy could see goose-pimples sweep across her skin like cat’s paws over water, and the power of her presence—distant, female, mysterious—filled him with fear.

They stood several feet apart and looked down at the city, where their house had been. The area was burning.

Jill gestured at it. “It’s too bad we only had the courage to live our lives fully in dreams.”

“I thought we were doing okay,” Abernathy said. “I thought we engaged it the best we could, every waking moment.”

She stared at him, again with the knowing smile. “You did think that, didn’t you.”

“Yes,” he said fiercely, “I did. I did.”

He went inside to work it off.

Then he woke up. He was in the mountains, in the high cirque again. He was higher now and could see two more lakes, tiny granite pools, above the cobalt-and-aquamarine one. He was climbing shattered granite, getting near the pass. Lichen mottled the rocks. The wind dried the sweat on his face, cooled him. It was quiet and still, so still, so quiet…

“Wake up!”

It was Winston. Abernathy was in his little room (high ranges in the distance, the dusty green of forests below), wedged in a corner. He got up, went to the crackers cabinet, pumped himself full of the benzedrine he had found in some syringes on the floor. (Snow and lichen.)

He went into the main lab and broke the fire alarm. That got everyone’s attention. It took him a couple of minutes to stop the alarm. When he did his ears were ringing.

“The device is ready to try,” he said to the group. There were about twenty of them. Some were as neat as if they were off to church, others were tattered and dirty. Jill stood to one side.

Winston crashed to the front of the group. “What’s ready?” he shouted.

“The device to stop us dreaming,” Abernathy said weakly. “It’s ready to try.”

Winston said slowly, “Well, let’s try it then, okay, Fred?”

Abernathy carried helmets and equipment out of his room and into the lab. He arranged the transmitters and powered the magnets and the field generators. When it was all ready he stood up and wiped his brow.

“Is this it?” Winston asked. Abernathy nodded. Winston picked up one of the wire helmets.

“Well I don’t like it!” he said, and struck the helmet against the wall.

Abernathy’s mouth dropped open. One of the techs gave a shove to his electromagnets, and in a sudden fury Abernathy picked up a bat of wood and hit the man. Some of his assistants leaped to his aid, the rest pressed in and pulled at his equipment, tearing it down. A tremendous fight erupted. Abernathy swung his slab of wood with abandon, feeling great satisfaction each time it struck. There was blood in the air. His machines were being destroyed. Jill picked up one of the helmets and threw it at him, screaming, “It’s your fault, it’s your fault!” He knocked down a man near his magnets and had swung the slab back to kill him when suddenly he saw a bright glint in Winston’s hand; it was a surgical knife, and with a swing like a sidearm pitcher’s, Winston slammed the knife into Abernathy’s diaphragm, burying it. Abernathy staggered back, tried to draw in a breath and found that he could, he was all right, he hadn’t been stabbed. He turned and ran.

He dashed onto the terrace, closely pursued by Winston and Jill and the others, who tripped and fell even as he did. The patio was much higher than it used to be, far above the city, which burned and smoked. There was a long wide stairway descending into the heart of the city. Abernathy could hear screams, it was night and windy, he couldn’t see any stars, he was at the edge of the terrace, he turned and the group was right behind him, faces twisted with fury. “No!” he cried, and then they rushed him, and he swung the wood slab and swung it and swung it, and turned to run down the stairs and then without knowing how he had done it he tripped and fell head over heels down the rocky staircase, falling falling falling.

Then he woke up. He was falling.

Back | Next